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Regional parties have a role to play

INDIA'S Constitution has prescribed a five-year term for the Lok Sabha and Vidhan Sabhas. This can be extended only when emergency is in force. However, the normal term can be curtailed when the Lok Sabha, in the event of a successful no-confidence motion, is not able to provide an alternative government or the Prime Minister advises the President for an early dissolution as he considers the time suitable to seek a fresh mandate. At the State level, apart from these reasons, the President may dissolve the State Assembly. Frequent elections to these bodies result in change of Government (Central/State) and lead to instability.

The Constitution, drafted in the aftermath of the Partition and the problems arising therefrom, recognised the need for integrating the States into the Indian Union and to remove backwardness of certain regions, has deliberately provided for a strong Centre. Its centripetal features are evident from the following:

1. A single judiciary;

2. Uniformity in fundamental laws, civil and criminal;

3. A common All-India civil and police service to man Central and State posts at senior levels: Later on the All-India Forest Service was formed.

4. Vesting of residual powers (not enunciated in any of the three lists - Central, State & concurrent).

5. Power to legislate on any item in the State list with the concurrence of the Rajya Sabha with two thirds, majority.

6. Appointment of Governors of the States by the President and they holding their offices at his pleasure.

7. Power of the Governor to refer any Bill passed by the State Legislature to the President before giving assent to it.

8. Planning Commission formulating Central as well as State plans and devolution of funds to the States in accordance with its recommendations. This is in addition to the devolution of taxes and grants recommended by the periodically-appointed Finance Commissions.

9. Prescribing overdraft and borrowing limits of the State Governments.

The list of items in the concurrent list has increased. In this list the Union Government exercises overriding powers.

These centralising tendencies were reinforced at the political level by the uninterrupted rule of the Indian National Congress at the Centre and in most of the States for 40 years (except from 1977-79). However, at the State level, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, in order to assert the Dravidian culture and its requirements made a dent in the Congress rule in Tamil Nadu in 1967 which continues uninterrupted to this day. Separate Andhra Pradesh was formed as a result of the sacrifice of Potti Sriramulu much against the wish of the Congress Government. The frequent change of Chief Ministers in Andhra Pradesh hurt the Telugu psyche and the Telugu Desam Party was formed to assert the dignity of the Telugu.

The Communist parties, though countrywide in nature, remain confined even to this day to West Bengal, Kerala and Tripura. The Asom Gana Parishad came into existence as a result of immigration from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) threatening the separate ethnic identity of the Assamese. The other north-eastern States occupied a special position even in the pre-independence days, which they continue to enjoy even now in the Constitution itself. Jammu and Kashmir's special status, though mentioned in the transitional category, continues even after 50 years. Till recently, no political party could fight the elections in Jammu and Kashmir except in collaboration with the National Conference which was instrumental in forcing the Maharaja to accede to the Indian Union. These regional parties acquired power in the States and the Congress party's influence at the State-level started waning. The demand for greater autonomy to the States gathered momentum and the Sarkaria Commission was appointed in 1983 to go into the Centre-State relations. The Commission submitted its report in 1988, but significant decisions on its recommendations have not seen the light of day.

The Indian polity could not remain standstill. A significant leap was taken when the eligible age for voting was reduced from 21 to 18 by the Rajiv Gandhi Government in 1988. The size of the electorate itself increased tremendously. Youth power was drawn into the voting stream. Its impact remains to be analysed. The era of a single-party majority Government at the Centre has come to an end and frequent Lok Sabha elections (1991, 1996, 1998 & 1999) have become common. Only the Congress Government, under the leadership of Mr. Narasimha Rao, though in minority, survived for five years. The Janata Party which was ruling in 1977 split in 1979 and the Bharatiya Jan Sangh which merged with the Janata Party in 1977 reappeared as the Bharatiya Janata Party in 1979. These were all-India parties but the Janata Party witnessed several splits in the form of the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal, the Rashtriya Janata Dal and the Biju Janata Dal and these parties became regional in character. The V. P. Singh Government though in minority in 1990 gave reservation to the backward classes in Government services. The political parties now vied with one another in broadening the list of backward classes and increasing the reservation percentages till the Supreme Court prescribed a 50 per cent ceiling. A new political party, the Bahujan Samaj Party, came into existence to safeguard the interests of the Dalits in Uttar Pradesh. The Samajwadi Party, offshoot of the Janata Dal, became a protagonist of the interests of not only the Dalits but also of minorities in particular Muslims. It will not be out of place to mention that the BJP existed even in the pre-Independence days; its name was Hindu Mahasabha then.

An important feature of the Indian polity is its overwhelming preponderance of members (325) from the Hindi-speaking States in the 543 member (elected) Lok Sabha.

Any party which wants to rule the Centre must acquire the majority of seats in the Lok Sabha from the Hindi-speaking States, or any group of parties, if in minority in the Lok Sabha, must secure the support of a party having a significant presence in these States as was the case with the United Front partners who had to take the support of the Congress. The regional parties have been clamouring for more autonomy but this has not been forthcoming. But then there is another method by which they can assert themselves at the Centre. The Indian voting system is based on joint electorate with reservations for SCs/STs and the first-past-the-post method gives importance to the minority votes in securing majority.

The Anti-Defection Law (Schedule X of the Constitution) differentiates between ``defection'' and ``Split''. A split is valid as it has to be supported by at least one-third members of the political party while defection is not. The law, instead of punishing members changing sides, has facilitated the formation of smaller parties as securing one-third majority in small parties is very easy. The Hindu Mahasabha was meant to fight concessions accorded to Muslims by the British rulers. During Partition, the Muslim majority areas formed a new State but the Congress did not accept the two-nation theory based on religion. In spite of the Partition a sizable number of Muslims remained in the country. Other communities such as Sikhs would also have asked for a separate nation and so also Christians in the North- East. This would have divided India further. India still remained and is even now a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, and a multi-faith country. The founding fathers decided to make India a secular state.

How long will this coalition government of 18 parties last? This is a question agitating the minds of the people. If this government has to be durable, the BJP and its allies should not act as rivals and increase their own strength independently. In politics, there are no permanent friends or foes. The interests of individual nations are paramount. In the political arena, the paramount interest of growth of alliance partners should not be at each other's expense. The BJP has only deferred its temple agenda, Article 370 and the common civil procedure code. It has not actually given up on these issues. Suspicion about its secular nature therefore will remain. At present, Mr. Vajpayee is the glue that holds the NDA together. But in the future, the BJP must allay suspicions about its secular character and contain its ambition of growth at the expense of its allies.

The country cannot afford frequent elections. Apart from the costs involved in the election process, it also brings to a standstill the country's development as policy decisions cannot be taken when a caretaker government is in charge. Well, there is no alternative to elections. In the name of political stability, the participation of smaller parties in the national elections should not be curbed. Their participation in the national government is a healthy trend. It has resulted in ``co-operative federalism'' with greater autonomy to the States in the governance of the nation for which they had been clamouring for so long. Political stability is, no doubt, desirable but this does not call for either a fixed term for the Lok Sabha or the Government. The practice of expecting the Prime Minister to prove his strength should be dispensed with. Let the Prime Minister be elected by the MPs. After his election he may be called upon to form the Government. The rules of business of the Lok Sabha should be so amended as to provide for a no-confidence motion which can be moved against his Council of Ministers for the first two or three years and whenever it is moved it should provide for an alternative Prime Minister as in Germany. Defeat of the Government on a money Bill or any other Bill should not be regarded as a vote of no- confidence. A substantive vote of no- confidence (composite) alone should be capable of dislodging it.

But the majority in the Lok Sabha has facilitated the formation of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance Government. But the NDA remains heavily outnumbered in the 245-member Rajya Sabha (NDA 81, opposition 138). The numbers in the Rajya Sabha are important as every legislation, barring bills related to financial business, has to be approved by both Houses. If the Vajpayee Government has to fulfil its promises, it cannot merely rely on its majority in the lower house. It has to carry the upper house along with it. The majority may help form Government but for running the country, political consensus is required.

R. S. KHANNA

formerly Chief Secretary, Govt. of Madhya Pradesh.

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